The Prime Minister is wrong to malign Parliament

The speech said nothing about how Brexit would occur, but much on how the PM views the legislature

Chris Hanretty
Mar 20, 2019 · 3 min read

Earlier this evening the Prime Minister made a speech on Brexit.

The speech — billed this afternoon as an "appeal to the nation" — contained no new information, no new proposals, and no indication as how to the UK might reach an agreement with the EU, and thereby avoid a disorderly Brexit.

Instead, the speech revealed more about how the Prime Minister views Parliament — as the home of “political games and arcane procedural rows”.

There was, in the late nineteen nineties and early two-thousands, a debate in the study of British politics as to whether the British system was becoming “presidentialised”, and whether prime ministers increasingly acted as though they had the same unmediated rapport with the electorate that presidents do.

This debate was driven by the then-considerable popularity of Tony Blair. Popular prime ministers might (ran the argument) abuse their popularity and in the process sidestep Parliament or Cabinet.

It takes an ordinary level of political sophistication to try and turn personal popularity into a direct relationship with “the people”.

It takes a particular brand of political genius to try and do the same with someone who is now a very unpopular prime minister.

Parts of the Prime Minister’s speech were true — although I’m not including the claims about public opinion in that category.

It’s true, for example, “MPs have been willing to say is what they do not want”.

If the government and parliament were entirely separate, then this would be a good reason for condemning MPs.

But of course government and parliament aren’t separate. The agenda of Parliament is to a large (and comparatively unusual) extent set by the government. Parliament has therefore had to operate within the context of those motions put to it by government. The failure to approve a deal is therefore a joint failure.

Criticising parliament in this way — as an obstacle to “getting on with it” — is not a good sign. Classic criticisms of presidential government decry the way in which presidential government fosters a particular anti-democratic style of governing. Here’s Juan Linz:

Perhaps the most important consequences of the direct relationship that exists between a president and the electorate are the sense the president may have of being the only elected representative of the whole people and the accompanying risk that he will tend to conflate his supporters with “the people” as a whole.

The plebiscitarian component implicit in the president’s authority is likely to make the obstacles and opposition he encounters seem particularly annoying. In his frustration he may be tempted to define his policies as reflections of the popular will and those of his opponents as the selfish designs of narrow interests.

This identification of leader with people fosters a certain populism that may be a source of strength. It may also, however, bring on a refusal to acknowledge the limits of the mandate that even a majority — to say nothing of a mere plurality — can claim as democratic justification for the enactment of its agenda. The doleful potential for displays of cold indifference, disrespect, or even downright hostility toward the opposition is not to be scanted.

There are plebiscitarian elements within Brexit that might have emerged under any prime minister. The "will of the people" has had tremendous rhetorical force. Using that trope is, up to a point, a wise political strategy for a Prime Minister. But given that the Prime Minister's deal depends for its success on the approval of the House of Commons, it's institutionally damaging and politically self-defeating for the Prime Minister to appeal to the public by denigrating Parliament.

Chris Hanretty

Written by

Professor of Politics, Royal Holloway

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